Sweet of the honey sector still eludes local beekeepers

- hope to cut a deal to supply Banks DIH Ltd

For the second year, a small group of die-hard apiculture enthusiasts, members of the Guyana Apiculture Society, assembled on the Water Street pavement outside the Muneshwer’s Complex last Saturday, to stage the society’s Honey Show.

It is a decidedly modest event with attendance and patronage usually heavily dependent on weekend shoppers.

Honey apart, the modest displays usually include soaps, creams and other apiculture by-products. Modest sales are made to patrons who have, in recent years, cultivated an increasing sense of the health value of the products. After they have made their purchases some of the visitors stay on to engage in chit-chat about the potential viability of the honey industry.

Lyndon Stewart who comes across as a tireless crusader for the apiculture sector has just been elected Chairman of the Apiculture Society. His tenure, he says, will be guided by the content of a strategic plan that seeks to cover the bee-keeping industry across the country. The problem is that while there are thousands of hives and probably several hundred beekeepers across the country, the society’s membership comprises twenty beekeepers.

The most obvious explanation for the stunted growth of the society is the seeming lack of motivation of most of the members. Those who assemble at the Honey Show appear – mostly – to be concerned with satisfying a hobby. There does not appear to be a common sense of purpose.

Beekeepers like Stewart, Karl Persaud and Aubrey Roberts appear to be key figures in the fraternity. Persaud “speaks for the beekeeping industry” at the level of the Guyana Livestock and Dairy Association (GLDA). That fact does not appear to sit well with other members of the society which, they believe should be allowed to select the sector’s representative on the GLDA. This newspaper understands that it is the government and not the society that has that prerogative.

Stewart says he is preoccupied with more mundane things, like how to ensure that local honey secures a greater share of the Guyana market. Other brands, imported brands, dominate the market, their superior labelling and packaging facilities keeping what Stewart says is “better quality honey” out of the market.

The new chairman of the Apiculture Society recalls a time when local malt manufacturer Banks DIH Ltd bought limited quantities of honey from a producer in Essequibo. That is no longer the case. Honey for industrial manufacturing is imported mostly from Mexico.

Stewart says that one of his ambitions for the society is to secure the Banks DIH Ltd market, which he estimates at 4,000 gallons annually. Stewart believes that an infusion of funding for equipment and transportation would position local beekeepers to fill that market. Beekeepers cannot afford to fund the infrastructure necessary for such an undertaking and at any rate there is no consensus among the beekeepers about the viability of the Banks market. Stewart favours trying to “talk a deal” with Banks.

Stewart wants the local beekeeping sector to look to the rest of South America, notably Brazil, for technical support to build the sector. That presumably might be facilitated under a bilateral agreement between the two governments. Government support for the beekeeping industry, however, does not appear to be particularly generous. South America is a big player in the global honey sector. During the first 11 months of last year US honey imports from Argentina totalled around US$116 million. Last year, Brazil exported a total of 16,707 metric tonnes of honey.  The local industry cannot contemplate such ambitious targets. Instead, Stewart says the short-term ambitions of the society include expanding its membership to include beekeepers from across the country.

George Smartt, a retired aircraft engineer who is in the process of returning to Guyana after migrating to the United States about 30 years ago has just embarked on a beekeeping venture as part of a more substantial investment in agriculture. Until his hives are established, his bees are being managed by Kingdom Apiaries. Smartt says he wants to be supportive of any planned initiative to take advantage of what he believes is an important niche market for honey.

Stewart says that with the global honey industry facing challenges associated with what is some instances is a sub-standard product Guyana would have been ideally positioned to secure an important share of the market if the country had been positioned to export the product. “The good thing about honey produced in Guyana is that it is pest-free, disease-free and chemical free,” Stewart says.

Possibly, the biggest challenge associated with expanding the sector has to do with changing attitudes to bees. “The fact of the matter is that a great many people are afraid of bees. They associate bees with attacks against humans. That obtains even in cases where people tend swarms.”

Stewart sees the heavily forested interior areas as rich in potential for the beekeeping industry. He has done considerable work in training locals in some areas to tend bees and extract honey. Production levels, however, remain modest, enough only to satisfy community demand and at any rate, Stewart says, packaging and labelling standards do not allow for access to a more sophisticated market.

Just recently, three local apiaries including Stewart’s Kingdom Apiaries secured grants from the EU-funded Caribbean Export for the development of hives. The three grant awardees are charged with using their grants to produce additional hives and to make these available to other local enthusiasts who may be interested in becoming part of the industry.

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